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In Defense of God, Family, Country

By David Egan

The phrase “God, family, country” is folk wisdom – a simple and transmissible reminder of what we live for. It is an incantation, a “series of words said as a magic spell or charm.” The incantor’s hope is that by saying these words, they might become real: a real God, a stable family, a unified country. The phrase registers emotionally before it does rationally. Therefore I imagine it activates the same cognitive pathways as poetry. It evokes an archetypally American image. “God, family, country” is American poetry.

The trinity is a statement of what matters above all else, a hierarchy of values, and I assert that it is the correct one. The phrase “God, family, country” not only indicates and encapsulates a value structure, but expresses it in the correct order: first God, then family, then country. It is a hendiatris, a figure of speech in which three words express one idea – like “reduce, reuse, recycle,” or “live, laugh, love,” or “veni, vedi, vici.” A cliché. “God, family, country” is a cliché worth perpetuating and implanting in our brains. We should allow it to guide us. The phrase is a grounding principle, valuable even to those who lean left, despite its connotations as politically conservative. Gen Z should reclaim the phrase from its conservative connotations, because “God, family, country” can and should be apolitical. We should expand what each of those words mean – God and family and country – and expand what it means to care about them above all else.

“God, family, country” invariably conjures up an image of right-wing conservatism: guns and trucks, drinking beer. There is no Wikipedia article for the phrase, though it is a subheader on the article for “Pro aris et focis,” a Latin motto meaning “for hearth and home.” Wikipedia says “Pro aris et focis” along with “Pro Deo et patria” (“for God and country”) together created “God, family country,” which the article defines as “meant to express devotion to what many consider the three pillars of traditional society: religion, family values, and patriotism.” This description usefully suggests why the phrase has become so stereotypically right-wing.

But there is no reason it needs to be a conservative motto, and there is no reason why God – to start at the top of the value hierarchy – cannot, in the 21st century, have an expanded definition. God can be, as David Foster Wallace memorably lists in his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech, “JC or Allah…YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles.” God in “God, family, country” is the highest power, the abstract notions of truth, beauty and goodness. God is love. These are eternal, transcendent values. I concur with Wallace in the Kenyon speech – as well as queer poet Richard Siken, who writes “The best part of spirituality is reverence. There are other parts” – that God or an equivalent power must be our object of worship. Truth, beauty, and goodness must be our objects of worship, above money, power, or ourselves, but also, even, above family and country.

Family is aptly lodged at the center of the hendiatris – the heart, the core – but in the modern world, it can mean more than the nuclear family. The “family” in “God, family, country” means extended family, too; it is one’s ancestors, dead or alive, whose spirits should be honored. Family is one’s origins. Some families are single-parent; some parents are same-sex. Children can be adopted, or they can be step-children. Friends can be family. Family can be chosen. This is not to make any value judgments on which family configuration is most optimal. It is simply to say that the phrase “God, family, country” is a reminder of the love and respect we owe to our families, whomever they may include. It is self-evident, but therefore rarely expressed as explicitly as in the phrase “God, family, country.”

Yet, the placement of family below God in the phrase “God, family, country” is not accidental. Family members are still just people – fallible, subjective individuals, with bad habits and lapses into immorality – people who will die, just like you. Prioritizing God means avoiding the mistake of worshiping family. One is nothing without family, but family is nothing without God.

Finally, country: one’s broader community, strangers on the street, the citizenry. Despite the stereotypical associations of “God, family, country,” this patriotism need not be blindly loyal. Valuing one’s country means working to improve it. As James Baldwin writes: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” There is plenty to criticize. Respecting one’s country – either of familial descent or current citizenship – does not mean justifying its ugly histories or moral failings. Rather, patriotism is acknowledging the opportunities, protections, and services one’s country provides. Like family, one is indebted to country for the accumulation of hard work by people over generations. Country is the greater good, the anonymous millions with whom we are in constant collaboration, making the world.

“God, family, country,” is a phrase subject to interpretation and can have a broad range of definitions, but it also consists of simple, common terms: the bread and butter of the soul. Tailor “God, family, country” to your personal beliefs, experiences and circumstances, but tailor it nonetheless. Without it we are tossed aimlessly unto life, left to flounder and forget what matters.

The phrase is a schema of value, taking on meaning only when it circulates on the LED ticker tape of the mind. The phrase is poetry, but as Harold Bloom says, “poetry does not teach us how to talk to other people: it teaches us how to talk to ourselves.” To understand one another, we may need more than a common love of “God, family, country.” But to understand ourselves – what the purest parts of our hearts desire – look no further than the hendiatris.


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